Undercover mother: Who was Karen Sullivan?
Prosecutors investigating more than a dozen Minnesota anti-war activists recently confirmed that the investigation relies on an undercover agent who spent two and a half years infiltrating their organization. Based on the subpoenas they have received, the activists believe the grand jury may eventually bring charges of providing material support for terrorism.
This is how the woman who called herself Karen Sullivan insinuated herself into the lives of local protesters, and how she mysteriously vanished just before FBI agents raided their homes.
In early 2008, the members of Minneapolis's Anti-War Committee were starting to plan their licensed protests against the upcoming Republican National Convention.
There were a lot of new faces getting involved at the time, and the Committee was holding meetings for new members.
Sometime in winter or early spring, Karen Sullivan came to her first meeting.
"She came with her girlfriend, whose name was Joy," recalls Meredith Aby, one of the founders of the Anti-War Committee. "We never saw Joy again. I don't know what happened to her."
But Sullivan came back, to meeting after meeting. A woman in her early 40s with short, sandy hair and a Boston accent, Sullivan was quiet and kept to herself for the most part. But she volunteered when tasks were handed out at the meetings, and always followed through.
"We were pretty excited that here was this person who seemed pretty reliable," Aby says.
It took a few months after Sullivan first started showing up before Aby really got to know her at all. The two went on a flyering run together, driving around to coffee shops to put the group's literature up on bulletin boards. They got into a conversation, asking about each others' lives.
"That was the first time we heard this story about her horribly tragic youth," Aby says.
The story Sullivan told Aby was the same she would eventually tell, with varying degrees of detail, to several members of the group with whom she became closest. In each case, it wasn't some polished biography. It came in dribs and drabs, a vague and tantalizing patchwork.
"The way she told it, she seemed like a real person with an actual backstory," Aby says.
Sullivan said she had grown up in Boston, but left home at an early age because her family couldn't deal with her being gay. She was homeless for a while, drifting over to the Twin Cities. She gave the impression that she might have been the victim of violence or abuse during this time.
Eventually, Sullivan said, she joined the armed forces to put a roof over her head and get her life in order. But she said she was kicked out for violating the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" provision.
After that, Sullivan became more politically aware, spending time in Northern Ireland working for the Irish Republican cause, she claimed.
Somewhere along the way, she and a woman named Lee, who lived in Minnetonka and had an art-framing store, conceived a daughter through in-vitro fertilization. But Lee was jealous, and didn't like Sullivan's politics. The relationship soured.
After more restless moving around, Sullivan had finally returned to Minnesota to be close to her daughter, Taylor, who was enrolled in seventh grade at Hopkins Jr. High.
Sullivan was working for a friend as a property inspector, and though her existence seemed tenuous, she drove an expensive black SUV that she said her boss let her use.
"I thought, 'Wow, your boss is cool,'" Katrina Plotz, another activist, remembered. "I hadn't thought that would be part of a gig like what she was doing."
AFTER THE REPUBLICAN National Convention, many of the short-term enthusiasts in the movement faded away, but Karen stayed on, becoming one of the most regular attendees of the group's meetings. Sullivan was becoming indispensable, and at the same time, she was expanding her connections beyond the Anti-War Committee. She volunteered to represent the group at various other coalitions, and attended the meetings of other activist groups.
Mick Kelly, whose home would later be one of those raided by the FBI, met Sullivan through his work on the Minnesota Coalition for the People's Bailout, fighting for a moratorium on home foreclosures. Then he started seeing her everywhere.
"She was definitely around," Kelly says. "She was always talking with a lot of people."
Dan Dimaggio met her when she started attending meetings of the Iraq Peace Action Committee.
"She was at every frickin' demonstration, she went all in," Dimaggio says. "It can be really exciting to find somebody like that, somebody who's a bit older, who seems like a working-class person. A lot of times the meetings are dominated by the same old faces."
In November 2008, Sullivan and other members of the group piled into a van for a road trip down to Columbus, Georgia, for the annual protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. Aby, who has traveled several times to Colombia in support of trade unionists there, was giving a talk.
After the talk, she was approached by a Colombian woman who introduced herself as Daniela Cardenas, who thanked her for speaking. A few minutes later, Cardenas was back again, this time with Sullivan. They said they had struck up a conversation in the bathroom.
"I remember thinking Daniela was really weird," says Plotz, who was also on the trip. "She was talking really fast, and something just seemed off with her personality. But it seemed like she was really flirting with Karen."
Cardenas gave Sullivan her number that night, leading to lots of teasing from the others. The two didn't reconnect that trip, but a few weeks later, Sullivan admitted that they had been really hitting it off over email, and she was planning to visit her home in Miami. Soon Cardenas was making regular trips to Minneapolis, her visits often coinciding with the Anti-War Committee's major demonstrations.
Aby found the new romance baffling. For one thing, Sullivan had long repeated that she didn't want any long-term relationship.
"But also, I remember thinking there wasn't any sexual tension at all. I didn't even think Daniela was a lesbian. But what can you say? You can't say, 'She's an 8, you're a 4, this doesn't make sense.'"
The relationship makes more sense now: Prosecutors recently confirmed that Cardenas, like Sullivan, was an undercover federal agent sent to spy on the activists.
IN MARCH 2009, Aby gave birth to a baby girl. Shortly afterward, Karen came by to visit, bringing a gift.
"It was a stuffed animal, literally the ugliest stuffed animal I've ever seen," Aby says. "But I kept it because I thought it was super sweet that someone would bring her something in the first week of her life."
As Aby became more occupied by motherhood, Sullivan offered to pick up the slack in keeping the committee running. Soon she was helping to keep the group's financial books.
At the same time, Sullivan was showing a new interest in the Palestinian cause. She joined a group in opposition to the war in Gaza, and she asked to join a delegation being planned to visit a Palestinian women's group. She and Plotz were selected to represent the Anti-War Committee on the trip, along with another member, Sarah Martin.
"Leading up to the trip, Karen was especially anxious that we all get our stories straight," Plotz remembers.
Israeli immigration officials take a dim view of activists visiting the Palestinian territories, so the group planned to identify themselves as members of a church group visiting holy sites.
But now Plotz thinks that Sullivan knew all along what would happen when they landed at Tel Aviv Airport. Israeli immigrations officials somehow knew they were coming. The three were stopped, and told they wouldn't be let in the country. They were to get on the next plane home. Plotz and Martin refused, and the Israeli authorities put them in a detention center. Sullivan, to their surprise, wouldn't join them. She told them she had to think about her daughter, and couldn't get mixed up in something so serious.
"I was surprised, but it kind of made sense," Plotz says. "As she was getting ready to leave us, I gave her a hug. I was really concerned that she not feel bad about leaving us there. I thought that moment was a real bonding experience for us."
Plotz and Martin were eventually deported, but they didn't see much of Sullivan for a while. She was traveling a lot—her former partner's mother was in the hospital, she said. Also she was frequently traveling to Chicago, where she said her boss had recently acquired a similar business.
In February 2010, Sullivan left town again, telling friends in the group that her estranged father had died. When she returned, she was emotional and erratic. She often came over to Aby's house in tears. On these occasions, Aby says, Sullivan would frequently shift the conversation to politics, making extreme statements that Aby didn't know how to respond to.
"I didn't understand at the time that she was a provocateur," Aby says. "When people are first realizing that the U.S. is involved in a lot of nasty stuff in foreign countries, they can get really radicalized. I thought that was what was going on with her."
But even as she became more emotional and unpredictable, Sullivan remained a good friend. In March she and Cardenas stopped by Aby's apartment to bring her one-year-old daughter another set of birthday presents: Cardenas gave a stuffed bear; Sullivan gave a toy cell phone.
"It's ironic, because I know now from my subpoena that they were tapping my cell phone the whole time," Aby says. "Of course I've since thrown all those things away."
That spring, Sullivan started planning a trip to Colombia. She and Cardenas were going to go on a personal trip to visit Cardenas's relatives. Sullivan began pressuring Aby to put her in touch with all the Colombian trade unionists she knew.
"That was really strange," Aby said. "This was a personal trip they were taking, not a political one. The people I know there are very busy, doing work that's often life-and-death. I wasn't going to ask them to meet a friend on vacation."
To Sullivan's frustration, Aby refused to introduce her to connections in Colombia. Still, planning for the trip went forward, and in September, Sullivan left the Twin Cities. It was the last any of her friends for the past two and a half years would see of her.
Sullivan was due to return on Wednesday, September 22, but didn't appear. Then, early on the morning of Friday the 24th, FBI agents raided five homes belonging to Minneapolis activists, including Aby, Jess Sundin, and Mick Kelly. Other activists, including Plotz, were handed grand jury subpoenas a few days later.
IN THE AFTERMATH of the raids, everyone who had ever been part of the Anti-War Committee was calling and emailing, asking if everything was all right, offering their support. Sullivan wasn't heard from at all.
When the committee learned that FBI agents had entered their offices at the University Tech building using a key, they drew the obvious conclusion: As hard as it was to believe, Sullivan had been an undercover informant all along. They agreed not to make any more efforts to contact her, and she was never heard from again.
Well, almost never. Plotz agreed with her friends that no one should have any substantial communication with Sullivan, but she was also curious. What if it wasn't really true?
"If someone ever accused me of being an infiltrator, and all my friends were shutting me out, that would be terrible," Plotz says. "I wanted to make sure that we weren't putting someone undeserving in that situation."
So without telling her friends, Plotz sent a text message to the woman she had known as Karen Sullivan.
Katrina: hey what's up? where've you been?
Karen: Keeping a very low profile, trying not to get caught up in stuf, u?
Katrina: bullshit. we know what you're doing.
Karen: What ever ur funny, :)
Katrina: nothing about this is funny. it's fucked up and sad. i miss the person i thought was Karen Sullivan. she was my friend.
Karen: Wow! I thought u were giving me a hard time for leaving town. apperantly that is not the case.
Katrina: you know exactly what's going and so do we. you are not who you said you were. but you're wrong and you will fail. don't bother writing back. this will be the last text u ever get from me.
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